Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Hustle Your Way to Adulthood

In my opinion, Kung Fu Hustle is among the greater Chinese movies of the past ten or so years. "Greater," in that the two prior films that I've written about here are, in some ways, better, but it all depends on perspective. Kung Fu Hustle is clever. It's genuinely funny. And unlike a lot of other movies of its genre, a lot of the actors are over forty and are all the better for it. A lot of wuxia films will have the protagonist be in his early twenties, perhaps, trying to find his or her place in the world. (See: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.)

But while the focus of the film is on a protagonist in his twenties, the heavy lifting of the film is done by two middle-aged characters who just want to retire and live their life in Pig Sty Alley, to perhaps try and forget who they used to be. The husband, the Landlord, is played by Yuen Wah, who was a stunt double of Bruce Lee's, and went to opera school with Jackie Chan. Yuen Qiu plays his wife, the Landlady, and apprenticed under the same master. In the film she is a chain smoker, is loud, and doesn't pull any punches, verbal or otherwise. Her special skill is the Lion's Roar, where she unleashes a shout that can bust through buildings. The Landlord is such a master of T'ai chi ch'uan (or Taijiquan) that his bones might as well be rubber.

I love both of them so much.

The other protagonists are Sing and Bone, two low-level criminals who initially impersonate members of the Axe Gang in order to get respect. Sing is the brains, while Bone is the brawn-- the two actors play off of each other marvelously in one botched assassination scene, and it's clear that Stephen Chow, the director and Sing's actor, knows what he's doing. At the beginning of the film the audience is, I think, supposed to hate Sing a little-- he's a punk jerk-off who would rather con someone and be a dick than actually do anything worthwhile with his life or time. And he suckers Bone into doing what he wants because the poor guy is too amicable and dense to maybe say otherwise.

The side three protagonists are the baker, the effeminate tailor (it grated on me that he had to be a limp-wrist flamboyant guy until had to beat someone up, but then he was awesome), and a Coolie. What I liked about them was the fact that it fed into the trope of anyone, literally, being an amazing martial artist. It's a little done to death, but in Kung Fu Hustle, it's at least done with panache. They show up for a while before dying at the hands of two of the Axe Gang's hired assassins. It's a bummer, but I think they would have stolen the show otherwise, and they did give the Landlady and her husband a good reason to get into the fray.

The big bad, by the way, is played by a Bruce Lee clone from the Bruce Lee era of martial arts films, and he's as great as he should be. He spends the majority of the film in a gross army shirt and boxers, with plastic sandals. He's employed and broken out of an asylum by the Axe Gang, who seem to more want the people of Pig Sty Alley to know their place in the hierarchy than anything else. The antagonist just wants to fight with the Landlord and Landlady, because he always heard that they were the best fighters out there. He's a pretty deplorable and frightening guy, all things considered.

Like many wuxia films, the focus of the story is also on the young protagonist realizing that martial arts is not about being an amazing fighter, as much as it's knowing your own limits and capabilities. It's only after you've figured out your own issues and seen your limitations that you can actually become a truly great martial artist. Sing gets his ass handed to him a few times before he pulls a Neo, and after that he's just incredible.

So much of the film is also about the importance of home. Without Pig Sty Alley, there isn't anything the Landlady or Landlord would really fight for. Compassion is a big deal, too: the Landlady and her husband are fighting for their renters, for each other, and for the good of Pig Sty Alley as an entity. They have the abilities to repel the bad guys, and they're going to do it: otherwise, they and their renters are going to be driven out of their homes and potentially killed. A lot of this ties into being a mature adult, as well. Sing himself learns, eventually, when to pick his battles and what makes it worthwhile.

Kung Fu Hustle is definitely a film worth seeing. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

One for All!

Man, I am terrible at this. Transitions are hard!

More on that later. For now: that Hero post I keep lying about writing!

The central questions that Hero revolves around are ultimately that of revenge, but also of compassion. Do you kill the emperor because it's what your heart cries out for? What you have spent the last years of your life honing yourself to do? Or do you spare his life, because he is the only one who can unify China?

These are not easy questions.

And, the thing is, Hero doesn't necessarily answer them. At the end of the film, Nameless (Jet Li) decides against killing the emperor, because sparing his life will mean that a vision of a unified state can finally be realized. There is so little standing in Nameless' way: the death of his comrades, his own personal convictions, they do not matter because, at the end, China needs to become one.

What is interesting is the fact that the protagonist (sort of) is never named, and that he wears traditional "assassin" colors. He could, literally, be anyone. The nameless protagonist has been played out almost too much in cinema, but the task of deciding the fate of a nation should not fall on one person's shoulders. Jet Li's character has very real, tangible emotions in the way that wuxia heroes have. Which is to say, he does not feel love, or sorrow. He feels all-consuming love/lust, and the deepest sorrow you can imagine. These are not the emotions of you or I. These are the emotions of an operatic character. You empathize with the broad brush strokes of those characters because, perhaps, you too have felt the bottomless pit of woe, or the all-consuming torch of love.

But could you kill one person for revenge, when it means that the fate of a country would be doomed?

Nameless spares the Emperor's life because of compassion. Compassion not for the emperor, but for the people of one-day China. This is a little awkward, considering the fact that the movie was funded by the Chinese government. You have to sacrifice your personal happiness in order for the whole to succeed. Sorry, China. Just...sweep those human rights under the patriotic rug.

I don't care if this didn't happen in history. I know how shocking that is, considering how much I love the idea of the Warring States Period in China. But the thing is, history can be told through the metaphors of movies like Hero. And it should. It should never be taken as actual fact, mind you, but perhaps it would be easier for students of history to better understand how enormous it was for China to finally be unified. And perhaps it would be easier for students to understand just how ritualized the emperor was. It's hard to understand, from an American perspective. The President has a Secret Service, but the Emperor of China? He has a small army of servants in the Forbidden Palace. Hero also makes clear what expectations Chinese cultural norms emphasize, or at least what the government hopes that Chinese citizenry will agree to deal with.

Yeah. I like this movie a lot. It's gorgeous, it has excellent music, and you get to see Jet Li and other great wuxia doing their thing on a grand scale. All in all, not bad.